Tablet PCs Go to School

For years educators and computer vendors have explored ways in which technology could aid with learning. Back in the 1980s when PCs first became affordable, technology was considered something to be taught, but now is considered an essential medium by which students learn.

Starting in January, one Ontario elementary school took this quest a step further by commencing a six-month pilot project with its grade eight students to see if Tablet PCs--a technology new on the market for about a year and a half--could improve the way these students learn.

Northern Lights Public School in Aurora, Ontario, part of the York Region District School Board, partnered with several technology companies to bring Acer TravelMate C110 series Tablet PCs to the classroom.

"[It's about] taking technology and making it part of the instruction," says Jim Forbes, school principal.

Students were tested in September 2003 to determine a baseline by which teachers could compare their progress throughout the school year. The students will be tested again at the end of the year to see if their ability to learn improved more than students in previous years.

Forbes says Northern Lights was a prime location to start such a project because it was newly built, having just opened in September 2003. When a new school opens in the York Region District School Board, it receives a budget of about $174,351 for new technology. However, the Tablet PCs were purchased outside this budget for approximately $1575 a pop after the board received a 30 percent price reduction.

Technical Details

Nick Vollebregt, chief information officer at the York Region District School Board, says the Acer Tablet PC was selected because of its touch sensitive screen, and its convertible format. Tablet PCs also come in a slate format whereby the keyboard can be disconnected from the monitor. Convertible Tablet PCs appear similar to laptops, but are smaller. Acer's Tablet PCs fit the bill, Vollebregt says.

All of the school's teachers plus the entire grade eight class--a total of 32 people--have been equipped with these devices. The teachers were provided with the devices back in the summer, while the students received their Tablet PCs one week before the December holiday break.

The devices are powered by Intel's Centrino chip, and run on Microsoft's Windows XP. Students are connected to the Internet via a wireless LAN, using 802.11b wireless access points from Nortel Networks. Northern Lights is the only school in the board connected via a fiber-optic line.

Also, students are allowed to bring the Tablet PCs home with them as the school board has set up home-based wireless access for them, courtesy of Microsoft Canada. When students connect to the network from home, data is encrypted through the school's network first, Forbes says.

Paper-Free Classrooms

In the classroom, the Tablet PCs have essentially replaced paper and the way courses are structured. David Brownlee, the grade eight teacher at the school, says about 90 percent of math, science, and language classes and 100 percent of history courses are conducted using the Tablet PC. He says the Tablet PC and the high-speed connection to the Internet gives students broader access to knowledge and allows them to participate more in learning instead of watching him lecture at a chalkboard.

Right now, the students are working on a robotics project, which Brownlee says exercises students' math, science, language, art, and research skills. The class was divided up into groups, or "corporations," and was instructed to design a logo, a company name, and choose a physical disability. Each corporation was then to build a robot that could assist individuals with the disability chosen. For example, one group selected color blindness and its robot will be able to identify colors when completed.

This project is made possible by The Lego Group's Mindstorms software, and the company's robot-building kits. Mindstorms provides the instructions for building the robot. Brownlee says some students who were previously disinterested in reading quickly read through the building instructions and manuals.

Mixed Reactions

While students are generally positive about the Tablet PCs and are enjoying their robotics project, they do have some concerns about the technology.

Xing Tu, a 13-year-old student, says using the Tablet PCs is more convenient than carting around a binder, and that the device itself is easy to use.

Fiona Massie, another 13-year old student, says at first it was difficult to use the Tablet PCs, but that she quickly became accustomed to the computers. However one thing she misses is drawing, and she expressed concern that art class has been relegated to the computer.

The students also expressed concern that the handwriting recognition software--Microsoft's OneNote--didn't accurately capture their handwriting.

The Tablet PC isn't the only new technology the school is testing out. In just over a month, Northern Lights Elementary School will be voice-over-IP-enabled.

Next year the York Region District School Board is going to take its project to the next level by trying to replicate the Tablet PC project at one of the Board's oldest schools--Stuart Scott Public School, built in 1923. As the school is so old, it doesn't lend itself well to wireless access with its high stairwells and numerous floors, so the project is going to focus on providing mobile hubs in the library. This will be tested by a split grade four/five class and a grade six class, which will also have a mobile hub installed in the classroom.

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